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Those Who Ogle Also More Likely to Have Harmful Attitudes

New research has found that looking at people’s bodies, rather than their faces, is linked with harmful attitudes

by Edith Cowan University
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New Edith Cowan University (ECU) research examining “eye gaze behavior” has found that looking at people’s bodies, rather than their faces, is linked with harmful attitudes towards sexual assault.

The study, led by ECU psychology researcher Dr. Ross Hollett, used eye tracking technology and self-report measures to examine how men and women look at the opposite sex. 

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Dr Hollett said an interesting finding was that excessive body gaze is one sign a person is likely to believe women tolerate or invite rough sexual conduct. 

“Gazing at someone's body instead of their face is one form of sexual objectification, or valuing people for their bodies over their minds or personality. This sexually objectifying gaze behavior can lead to more harmful attitudes and behaviors,” he said. 

Where are people looking? 

Eye tracking technology was used to measure the gaze of 167 heterosexual participants towards partially and fully dressed images of men and women. 

Researchers also asked more than 1,000 heterosexual participants to self-report their own body gaze behaviors towards the opposite sex. Participants rated statements such as "once I notice an attractive man/woman’s body, I have trouble not looking at it" and "no matter where I am, I typically find myself looking at the bodies of men/women." 

“Using eye tracking, we found male participants showed strong preferences for gazing at the bodies of partially and fully dressed women instead of their faces,” Hollett said.

“By contrast, women did not show body gaze preferences for any of the male or female imagery. In fact, they largely showed balanced gaze profiles (similar gaze towards both the head and body), with the exception of a preference to gaze at the heads of fully clothed men.?

“Men were also more likely to self-report gazing at women’s bodies more than women self-reported gazing at men’s bodies.”

Attitudes towards sexual assault

To provide further context, researchers also looked at participants’ relationship status, their responses to statements about whether women invite and/or tolerate sexual assault, and whether they themselves have been the victim of a sexual assault. 

Hollett said an important finding was the strong associations between body gaze behavior and sexual assault attitudes.

“Specifically, men who tended to gaze at women’s bodies were more likely to assume that women invite or tolerate rough sexual conduct. That is, they were more likely to agree with statements like ‘women find forced sex a turn on’ and ‘women secretly desire to be raped,’” Hollett said. 

Harmful signals

Hollett said the research demonstrated that excessive body gaze was an important social signal of potentially harmful attitudes and behaviors.

“When we observe someone engaging in excessive body gaze, we can assume they are more likely to agree with certain sexual assault beliefs which might put them at higher risk of being a perpetrator,” he said.

“This study has shown that similar patterns of behavior emerge when measuring gaze using self-report and eye tracking technology which suggests heterosexuals are largely aware of their gaze habits and possibly use them to communicate sexual interest and intentions to the opposite sex. 

“Understanding how women and men look at each other is important for explaining and predicting social behavior, particularly those behaviors that have harmful consequences,” Hollett said.

- This press release was originally published on the Edith Cowan University website